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Ask Her: Talking about women, HIV/AIDS, and Human Rights: An Interview with Kidist Belete

Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Kidist Belete is the founding Executive Director of Developing Families Together, an Ethiopian grassroots organization. Photo: Alexis MacDonald / Stephen Lewis Foundation

What can be done to turn the tide against HIV/AIDS? HIV is the world’s leading infectious killer; it is estimated by UNAIDS that in sub-Saharan Africa alone, some 24.7 million people were living with HIV in 2013. This disease not only affects the health of individuals – it damages families and communities, preventing social development and economic growth.  HIV/AIDS threatens people’s most basic human rights.

If we are to understand how to combat this global epidemic, we need the knowledge of those who are on the frontlines in this crisis. This is why the Museum features an exhibit about the Canadian and African Grandmothers who are working to combat this disease.  It is also why the Stephen Lewis Foundation has organized the Ask Her Talks. The talks are a unique opportunity to hear a group of African women experts speak about their work combatting HIV/AIDS.  I recently had the chance to ask Kidist Belete about HIV/AIDS, human rights and why we need to listen to the voices of African women who are on the ground fighting this disease.  

Tell us a little bit about yourself and why you are speaking in the Ask Her Talks?

My name is Kidist Belete. I live in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. About 12 years ago, I worked as a gender officer in an organization that coordinates the charitable and development-related work of the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia. It was there I developed increasing sensitivity to the distinctive nature of the adversities faced by women in the poorest and most marginalized social settings. That is the sensitivity that I took with me into the fight against HIV/AIDS. I came into that fight when the social dislocations caused by HIV/AIDS began to appear in my neighborhood. I was, in a way, drafted by the community into the fight. I have not left the battlefield since.    

I am speaking at this forum because my experience and the experience of my small organization puts a face on the fight against HIV/AIDS. I believe the real-life experiences that I talk about give a human touch to our collective efforts against this monster of a problem. I think that human touch sends a message that can’t be conveyed in conventional ways such as proposals, reports, and statistical compilations of progress.

What makes the Ask Her Talks different from other talks focused on AIDS?

The difference is that it brings to the forefront women who are leading the fight against the pandemic. These can be women who are themselves HIV positive or who had to take responsibility for those who have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS. They can be women, like myself, who are working as founders and directors of grassroots organizations that mobilize and deploy resources that are needed for the fight. It can also be women who speak out on behalf of those who have been hit hard by HIV/AIDS but do not attract sufficient attention. These women also all live and work at the crucial juncture where HIV/AIDs and gender-based inequalities come together. We are not only women, but we also work with women. For these reasons I think our perspectives differ from others such as health or public policy professionals who predominate in other talks focused on HIV/AIDS. 

What makes AIDS in Africa a human rights issue?

It is quintessentially a human rights issue due to the extensive morbidity and mortality that it causes. HIV/AIDS deprives people of their right to a healthy life and decimates their ability to provide resources that sustain life such as food, water and proper shelter.  Health, food, water and shelter are basic human rights.

It is also a human rights issue because HIV/AIDS destroys families, leaves children and the elderly without caregivers, and unravels communities and social networks that sustain normal life in Africa. I believe the right to live as part of a social collectivity to which one belongs and contributes is a human right.   

What can people do if they want to help with this important issue?

I think people can help by directly supporting those of us in the frontlines or by mobilizing support for us. They can do this individually or in groups, either directly by identifying which point of intervention accords with their sensibilities and the nature of the support that they can afford to give or, even better, by contributing to the resource pool of organizations such as the Stephen Lewis Foundation that have been in the fight against HIV/AIDS through some of the most innovative, carefully selected and well-informed avenues of intervention.

It is important to look beyond HIV/AIDS as a public health emergency, which it was a few years ago (and continues to be in many places even today). It is important also to remember that HIV/AIDS was and is a socioeconomic disaster of the highest magnitude. It has left children without parents and the elderly without any means of sustenance. We must keep in mind that we still have to protect vulnerable groups against infection and fight stigma attached to the infection.  We must remember the fight is not over yet.

The Ask Her Talks take place in several cities, including Winnipeg on Wednesday, November 25, 2015 and Toronto on Tuesday December 1, 2015. More information is available at www.askhertalks.com. You can learn more about how women in both sub-Saharan Africa and in Canada are combatting the HIV/AIDS epidemic at the Canadian Museum Human Rights and in this blog about the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign.